My family came to America as refugees from the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970’s. As a child, I witnessed the grief and trauma that resulted from my family’s memories while they were processing and healing from the tragedy.
In the States, my parents quickly learned English and began working to support our family. It angered me whenever they experienced racism/discrimination, like the time when a cashier at a clothing store mocked Ma for the way that she spoke. I wanted others to understand the sacrifices that my parents had to go through. Our Khmer community had to be strong and adaptable with the sudden drastic changes they needed to make with their lives and futures.
During my K-5 public schooling, I only knew two peers that were Cambodian like me. While we had firsthand knowledge of the recent histories and experiences of our Khmer community, I did not have the opportunity to share my stories at school until my fourth and fifth grade teacher, Ms. Cochran, assigned a special project for Multicultural Night. We got to research, write, and draw about any country of our choice. And of course, I naturally wanted to teach about where my family came from.
This year, Khmer New Year will fall between April 14th and 16th. I encourage you to share with your community of students, families, and friends about the country of Cambodia and its courageous people.
I put together a list of six books written about or by Cambodian people. The picture book illustrations remind me of the style of paintings that my Ba (dad) enjoys making when he recalls his life in Cambodia.
Any of these books can be turned into Conversation Books if you explain the history behind the events.
In short, Pol Pot, the dictator that led the Khmer Rouge, wanted to “cleanse” the country of Cambodia to rise above other countries in the world and also perpetuate discrimination among the people of Cambodia.
Six Books Celebrating and Exploring Cambodian Experiences
1. The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany’s Gift of Hope written by Daryn Reicherter and translated by Bophal Penh [Picture Book]
On The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature, “The Cambodian Dancer” is an Exploration Book if you focus on how the traditional dancing is a part of Sophany’s identity and culture.
It can be a conversation book if you teach into the history that is implied through Sophany’s journey of being banned from her job as a dancer, needing to escape from the country, and moving to the United States.
2. A Path of Stars by Anne Sibley O’Brien [Picture Book]
On The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature, “A Path of Stars” is an Exploration Book because Dara’s grandmother recounts her experiences growing up and living in Cambodia. This book is based on real-life experiences with dreamy-like illustrations.
3. Dara’s Cambodian New Year written by Sothea Chiemruom and illustrated by Dam Nang Pin [Picture Book]
On The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature, “Dara’s Cambodian New Year” is an Exploration Book. As Dara’s family prepares for their New Year celebrations, Dara connects with her Da (grandpa) and their culture through his paintings of his beloved country.
4. Half Spoon of Rice: A Survival Story of the Cambodian Genocide written by Icy Smith and illustrated by Sopaul Nhem [Picture Book]
On The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature, “Half Spoon of Rice” is a Conversation Book because it delves into the story of nine-year-old, Nat, who was taken away from his family and forced to work in the rice fields. This book provides perspective on how Cambodians, including youth, were mistreated during the genocide.
5. The Kind Monk by Rachael Fox [Picture Book]
On The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature, “The Kind Monk” by Rachael Fox is a Representation Book because it is based on Stevid John, a Buddhist Monk, who helps sick, injured, and abandoned animals in Siem Reap, Cambodia. His actions show readers the importance of having compassion for everyone around us, including animals!
6. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung [Autobiography Chapter Book]
On The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature, “First They Killed My Father” is a Conversation Book because the Khmer author, Loung Ung, explains her story as a young girl enduring and surviving through the time of the Khmer Rouge. The realities of the tragedy are tough but necessary to read for young adults and adults to understand what the conditions were like.
Thank you for adding books about the Cambodian community into your collection of Colorful Pages. Suo Sdey Chnam Thmey (Happy New Year)!